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Rugby: 200th Anniversary

Volume 828: debated on Wednesday 15 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they plan to take to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the game of rugby football; and what plans they have to support rugby as a grassroots game.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and remind the House of my ongoing interests in rugby football.

My Lords, His Majesty’s Government are delighted that rugby football is celebrating its bicentenary this year. Last month, the Minister for Sport was thrilled to attend some of the celebrations that took place at Rugby School. Rugby continues to be one of our most widely participated-in sports and we are committed to supporting it at all levels. We also look forward to England hosting the women’s World Cup in 2025.

My Lords, once we have got over the celebration of the women’s World Cup, which is a good thing, does the Minister agree that grass-roots sport, that usually creates its own pitches and facilities without government help—it does it itself—is in real trouble, thanks to Covid cutting down the number of players, its primary income source, and the fact that energy costs and inflation are knocking on the doors of a smaller base to create the finances to keep it going? Will the Government assure us that they will look positively at making sure that this voluntary group can carry on delivering the benefits it does in both mental and physical health?

Voluntary groups indeed do a great deal of good work to support the sport in all communities, but the noble Lord is not right to say the Government are not doing their part too. We have committed to delivering the pitches and sports facilities that every community needs and are investing £230 million between 2021 and 2025 on top of an existing £18 million annual commitment in England, so the Government are supporting those groups, as we did during the pandemic.

My Lords, noting that I am a former rugby player who suffered my own fair share of concussions, may I ask what steps the Government are taking both to protect young players from life-changing injuries and to protect local clubs from bankruptcy due to claims by former players?

The safety, well-being and welfare of everyone taking part in sport, whatever the sport, are paramount and the Government are leading work on brain injuries across sports, specifically looking at concussion. We are working with interested parties across the sporting world to develop a single set of shared concussion guidelines, which will be published in the near future.

My Lords, since the day after tomorrow is St Patrick’s Day, will the Minister join me in a fit of magnanimity and wish the Irish rugby team every success in their bid to get the Grand Slam next weekend?

The noble Lord tempts me to send wishes against my own home nation. I send good wishes to all the teams from the British Isles—and, indeed, the other two.

My Lords, when one thinks of Nelson Mandela wearing a Springbok shirt in the World Cup final in 1995 or the England rugby team playing in Dublin during the Troubles, one realises that rugby is a game that can inspire. When one thinks of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, playing rugby, one realises that the game can amaze.

Does my noble friend recognise that next month’s Union Cup, the Europe-wide tournament for lesbian and gay teams, will be the largest sporting event in the West Midlands this year? It has inspired and encouraged large numbers of people in diverse communities to take up the game of rugby.

I completely agree with what my noble friend says about the power of this sport to inspire people around the world. I pay tribute to his long-standing championing of it, as both a referee and a founder and vice-president of the Kings Cross Steelers, who I believe have been very successful in the Union Cup which he mentioned. I am glad to hear that that will take place in Birmingham later this year and I send good wishes to everyone taking part.

Does the Minister agree that it is no surprise that it was at an independent school that William Webb Ellis innovated by picking up the ball and running with it? Will the Government do all they can to promote independent schools in this country while at the same time improving the standards of education in state schools so that diversity of approach in sport and elsewhere is maintained?

As a former comprehensive school boy, I must stand up for schools of all sorts, including the independent and private sector. Of course, there were not as many state schools in 1823 at which to innovate in quite the same way, but through our support for schools opening up their sporting facilities, whatever sector they are in, we are keen to make sure that they continue to inspire people to take part in sport.

My Lords, we are entering a new era for women’s rugby, with many opportunities to grow the game. How will the Government use forthcoming events, including the 2025 women’s Rugby World Cup, which the Minister referred to earlier, to advance the participation of women and girls not just in rugby and other sports but in general fitness and health improvement?

Happily, we have seen in recent years the successes of women’s professional sports teams inspiring women and girls of all ages to be more active and take up sport. We are determined to get more women and girls playing sport and want to see women in leadership positions across it, whether that is in playing or coaching, on the medical and support side or at board level.

My Lords, Lady Masham, who is so sorely missed, won gold in swimming and silver in wheelchair table tennis at a number of Paralympic Games. She was a passionate champion of disabled sports at all levels. While there is a good range of grass-roots sports for the disabled, including wheelchair rugby, seated tai chi, disabled angling, para dance and all-ability sports such as sitting volleyball, their spread by locality is very patchy, meaning that many disabled people have no chance to play. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that all disabled people can access grass-roots sports in their area?

That question gives me the opportunity to add my tributes to the late noble Baroness, the first Paralympian in your Lordships’ House. I am pleased to say that Sport England has provided more than £800,000 of support for wheelchair rugby since 2019 to encourage people of all backgrounds and abilities to get involved. We are supporting communities to have pitches and sports facilities to ensure that people of all backgrounds and abilities can take part in sports.

My Lords, has the Minister’s department taken any opportunity to discuss with the rugby authorities the provision of medical cover at all levels, including grass-roots rugby?

My right honourable friend the Sports Minister meets the sporting bodies regularly and discusses these matters. I will take that point back and discuss it with him.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that in the past nine months two Premiership rugby clubs have collapsed. He will also be aware that several Premiership clubs and some professional clubs in the Championship, the second division, are under severe financial stress. What is the Government’s view of the future of rugby given these financial stresses? Should the department undertake a review of the organisation of the professional game to ensure its successful continuity?

The Government provided £600 million of support through the sport survival package during the pandemic. We are in close communication with the Premiership Rugby league and the Rugby Football Union on their plans to manage the issues still facing the sport and their longer-term sustainability as we emerge from the pandemic. My right honourable friend the Sports Minister regularly engages with them and will continue to do so.

My Lords, is not the ever-growing partnership between independent and state schools in sport one of the most encouraging features of education at the moment? I declare my interest as president of the Independent Schools Association. How about assembling two teams composed of some of the leading lights in rugby from independent and state schools, combining the best from both schools, and getting the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, to referee?

It sounds a very good idea; I wonder whether the noble Lord would agree. We certainly want to inspire people of all backgrounds to take part in this sport.

Is my noble friend aware of the tablet on Doctors Wall at Rugby which reads:

“This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it”,

thus creating the present-day game?

My noble friend’s question is a very good one indeed to see out our 10 minutes, and a good opportunity to be grateful for the innovation of William Webb Ellis and the two centuries of enjoyment that he has given people all over the world.